December 22, 2008 | General

Biomass Energy Outlook: Greening The Path That Lies Ahead

BioCycle December 2008, Vol. 49, No. 12, p. 37
Mark Jenner

IN recent years, “green” has had a unifying quality of serving as an umbrella for energy independence, environmental/carbon interests, and waste remediation. This broad umbrella allowed different groups to rally around green for different reasons. Now comes the difficult process of prioritizing these various “shades” of green.
“Green” is the focus of all three of the critical frontiers of economics, science and policy. Economics represents human choice. Science captures the knowledge and technology to get things done. Policy represents the boundaries established to constrain or encourage human choice.
The U.S. grain farmers and biofuels industry have been locked in near-mortal combat with food manufacturers, livestock producers and oil companies in the food vs. fuel debate. Food shortages – both real and perceived – strike fear into the heart of everyone who eats. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Biomass (recently generated plant materials) is more than just food or fuel. Biomass materials can be used for food, feed, energy, fertilizers, manufacturing, remediation and recreation. Fossil fuels are used only for energy, fertilizers and manufacturing. Shifting to biomass will continue to challenge all established markets. A new subset of the food vs. fuel debate will be food vs. feed. It is more efficient to grow and eat plants than meat. We eat meat because we crave it, not because it is carbon efficient.
Other industries, like composting, rely on residual carbon materials to generate revenue. Biomass energy will compete for the same materials as compost. In this case, there is plenty of science to support both burning carbon and returning it to soil. Both of these markets include nonmonetary benefits. What has yet to be determined is which one returns the highest total value.
The biggest challenge on the technology front is sorting through the various legal definitions of conversion technologies. There is confusion about the difference between incineration and gasification. Individual states may legally define these technologies as the same, or they may define them as distinctly different. The fundamental technical difference is that gasifiers restrict or control the oxygen supply to the technology. The result is that energy is stored in the volatile gases rather than being oxidized (and combusted) with oxygen. This also lowers emissions.
Even loading biomass into an incinerator without restricting oxygen can have more environmental benefits than not loading biomass. And, progress can be enhanced by embracing the blending of biomass with fossil fuels. Liquid fuel systems and power plants are doing this as a first step.
The key to protecting the environment and promoting industry growth is to write efficient environmental regulations. I mean the old-fashion air, water, solid waste regulations, without addressing carbon sequestration policy. In the 1970s, environmental regulation began with a natural first-step of permitting based on technology. Regulations have evolved into targeting emissions (or outputs) with numeric standards.
Outcome-based rules or numeric standards are an efficient way to regulate. These terms strike fear into the hearts of most industries, because those standards may not be economically – or worse – even technically achievable. In a vibrant, growing economy, emissions standards must be both economically and technically achievable.
These conditions do not apply to the new San Joaquin Valley (California) Air Pollution Control District’s 9 ppm NOx standard for stationary generators. No operating engines currently meet that standard. This stopped progress on the installation of anaerobic digester generators that were funded by the California Energy Commission and other public monies. These very efficient digester engines emit about 30 ppm NOx emissions, which is a lower emission than existing stationary engines emit.
Part of the difficulty in adopting new technologies for biomass conversion is working around regulations based on existing technology. Technology-based rules are not easy to adapt. The only kind of regulation less efficient at controlling emissions than technology-based standards is one that also regulates the inputs. Regulations that over-restrict inputs, technologies, and outputs, interfere with innovation and threaten economic and technical achievability.
Even more onerous is that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is considering the regulation of indirect land use in the development of their Low Carbon Fuel Standards. EPA has also raised the issue in their July 2008 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on regulating GHG emissions through the Clean Air Act authorities. Indirect land use attempts to restrict inputs that are diverted from other uses to produce biofuels. The initial driver was a concern that rainforests were being destroyed to produce corn and soybeans for biofuels. These rules have not been written yet, but would impede on the continued innovation of biofuels technology and use.
This wide variety of conflicting green challenges can be manageable when placed in the proper context. Next month, I’ll recap the tireless growth of biomass energy projects in 2008. Even with setbacks, we continue to navigate the green path into the future.
Mark Jenner, PhD, operates Biomass Rules, LLC and has over 25 years of biomass utilization expertise. Burning Bio News is Jenner’s scorecard of bioenergy project adoption, available at

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